Why did the Dalai Lama ban Dorje Shugden?

Meindert Gorter explores the history and reasons behind the Dalai Lama's ban on the deity Dorje Shug

The Dalai Lama has given several reasons to explain the excommunication of the protector, Dorje Shugden, back in 1996. However what he has actually seemed to be doing is adapting the gravity of the ban to match the level of protest against it within the Tibetan community. In some interviews he has even denied having banned the deity; he only wanted to give a warning, people can make their own decision.

The deity is accused of fundamentalism because he obstructs the mixing of the four main schools of Buddhism, which is supported by the Dalai Lama and his teachers. The Dalai Lama said the thought of Dorje Shugden bothered him while taking initiations from one of these, the Nyingma lineage.

We, who stubbornly go on with the deity-practise, don’t see any reason whatsoever to mix the lineages. Each lineage has its own unique transmission; if mixed we think it's like mixing an apple pie with a banana split: you will end up with an undefined mess. There is a lot of mutual respect between the lineages so why give them up?

Knowing the Dalai Lama’s status and the adoration Tibetans feel for him, his words caused turmoil in Tibetan society. Solely due to social pressure, people decided to abandon the practice of worshipping Dorje Shugden, choosing to live by the lines set out by the Dalai Lama.

After all, continuation of this practise was bad for the Dalai’s health and damaging the Tibetan cause, and who wants responsibility for that? Serious Dorje Shugden practitioners however felt it impossible to choose between the two. "The Dalai Lama wants me to choose between my father and my mother," said some when asked why they would not stop. Others, more philosophically trained monks and teachers, found the ban to be anti-Buddhistic and for that reason alone would not stop.

Gradually the pressure on Dorje Shugden practitioners got worse. Fanatical Dalai Lama followers began to demolish statues of the deity, the existing social solidarity amongst Tibetans was gone. Even in Tibet itself, where restoration of temples is in full swing and people enjoy new religious freedom, this ban created suspicion. Dorje Shugden worshippers were accused of being part of the ‘Dorje Shugden sect’ and became outcasts. The Dorje Shugden Society was founded, an ad-hoc group of people working together to oppose the ban - not to save the enlightened deity from harm but to help thousands of people from becoming outcasts.

But numerous appeals and worldwide protests have not helped. The Dalai Lama has not responded and refuses all contact. If you think the Dalai Lama is only in the business of provoking positive sentiments, as most Westeners believe, you have to firmly close your eyes to imagine this less romantic reality.

During speeches in India in January 2008, he has enforced the ban more strictly then ever before, claiming that his own religious freedom is obstructed by Dorje Shugden.

The last years brought us forced signature campaigns, in which monks promised to stop propitiating Dorje Shugden in return for obtaining travel documents from the exiled government or to be admitted into monasteries. Last January monks were engaged in weird actions such as swearing in a loud voice to denounce the deity. All contact with those monks that have not followed the ban is forbidden. This implements a de-facto apartheid with signs forbidding monks from entering classrooms, hospitals and shops. They even have to study and dine separately.

However, in spite of all this, there exists some solidarity with the Nyingma monks helping the Dorje Shugden monks to survive within this hostile monastic environment.